Database: Solving Problems with Technology

Digital natives need a technology skills boost

Jinghong Cai

Nowadays, we do almost everything online, from submitting a job application to enrolling in health insurance, from chatting with virtual customer service to following web-based instructions on assembling furniture.

Surprisingly, many millennials in the U.S. are only able to use digital technology to solve the simplest of problems. According to an assessment conducted by the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 58 percent of American young adults between ages 16-34 were found to have a low skill level in problem solving in technology-rich environments, although they reported spending 35 hours per week using digital media.

Problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE) represents a process in which we use technologies to accomplish our everyday tasks in personal, work, and civic life. OECD defines PS-TRE as using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.

A low-level PS-TRE task, for example, involves sorting emails (e.g., responses to a party invitation) into pre-existing folders, while a high-level PS-TRE task can be managing requests to reserve a meeting room on a particular date using a reservation system, or responding to a request for information by locating information in a spreadsheet and emailing the requested information to the person who asked for it.

As a new domain for learning and instruction, PS-TRE encompasses how to set a goal and establish a plan for applying technology skills to find, manipulate, and make use of information. It should be noted that PS-TRE has two key components—computer literacy and capacity to operate within a digital environment solving problems in everyday life as users of digital technologies. Simply put, PS-TRE is a set of skills that involves reading comprehension, critical thinking, decision making, and abilities to use information and communication technologies.


The consensus among educators and policymakers is that proficiency in information processing skills, such as PS-TRE, is positively associated with many aspects of individual well-being. Recently, Adobe conducted a survey on essential skills that students need for jobs in tomorrow’s technology. Nearly all the surveyed educators and policymakers in the U.S. think creative problem solving, like PS-TRE, is a very important skill for students to learn in school.

But PS-TRE is not taught enough in America’s schools. Approximately
84 percent of the surveyed educators and 68 percent of the surveyed policymakers said that there is not enough emphasis on teaching students this skill in American education.

Although there are issues related to equal access to technology for every student, the new generation of American students, in general, is ready to learn PS-TRE. “Today’s students are digital natives,” as stated in a comment posted on the website of the U.S. Department of Education. In 2015, about 71 percent of children ages 3 to 18 used the internet. Among these children, 86 percent used the internet at home; 65 percent at school; 31 percent at someone else’s home; 27 percent at a library, community center, or other public place; and
14 percent at a coffee shop or other business offering internet access. Additionally, 27 percent of these children used the internet while traveling between places.

More technology in the lives of students does not mean that students naturally become savvy about using technology and the internet for learning. When teachers provide direct instruction, guidance, and learning activities, students will acquire skills for planning, selecting, and employing technology, as well as critical thinking and using information efficiently and effectively. Teaching problem-solving skills in digital environments involves encouraging students to use technology in an ethical and sensible manner.


Digitally responsive curriculum (DRC) is a path for students to acquire problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. According to the Adobe survey, 87 percent of educators, comprising 84 percent of teachers teaching students in grades six to 12 and 91 percent of higher education instructors surveyed, agreed that problem-solving skills in digital environments should be integrated across all areas of the curriculum.

By 2017, 22 states have adopted specific learning standards related to information, digital, and media literacy. However, not every state emphasizes problem-solving skills in digital environments, nor does every state infuse PS-TRE in curricula other than computer science, library and media. In brief, PS-TRE does not play a role in most curricula.

The goal of DRC is to identify opportunities and connections that help students build skills, processes, and habits that will enable them to be productive contributors to the 21st century society. To be digitally responsive, students should employ technology proficiently, redefine problems and opportunities, come up with innovative solutions, and then take action. DRC helps students to acquire PS-TRE skills as they progress through the K-12 school system.


According to the Adobe survey, the most commonly cited barriers to nurturing problem-solving skills in digital environments are lack of time in class, pressures from meeting standardized testing requirements, lack of training for educators, and lack of access to technology in students’ home.

We encourage school leaders to consider the following questions when designing or implementing DRC:

·       What barriers (e.g., lack of professional development in this pedagogy, students’ poverty level, limited budget) to integrating PS-TRE into curricula does your school district have?

·       What resources (e.g., local businesses for partnership, volunteers from the community, grant programs) does your school district have for embedding PS-TRE into curricula?

·       How does your school district balance barriers and resources and embed PS-TRE in the classroom every day?

For school leaders, an easy way to consider DRC is to bridge curriculum with skills needed for everyday work and life in the digital era. Rather than a textbook, a video, or any learning material, digitally responsive curriculum is a system of hands-on activities that attract students to learn by creating curiosity to solve real-life problems using their knowledge of technology.

Jinghong Cai ( is a research analyst with NSBA’s Center for Public Education.

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